Our generation seems afflicted with a grim fascination for the apocalypse. We watch The Walking Dead, read books like Maze Runner and The Road, play video games like The Last of Us and have inflated the Ebola pandemic into a media monster. But we don’t lend much thought to what would happen after the cataclysm. What cultural icons would unify us, what stories would survive and how would those stories be reinterpreted? Playwright Anne Washburn tackled these questions in her play Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play.
The first act shows a group of survivors gathered around a campfire. An ambiguous string of nuclear disasters has decimated the population and many are forced to travel to avoid spreading clouds of radioactivity. As night falls, this particular band begins discussing the way things once were and talk eventually turns to The Simpsons (Matt Groening’s generations-defining television show, viewed fondly by some, a humorless cartoon cockroach that refuses to die according to others). With everyone pitching in the lines they remember, the group manages to reconstruct the episode “Cape Feare” (a parody of the film Cape Fear).
Act two skips seven years into the future, when the same group has assembled into a sort of primitive corporation, making it their mission to reenact entire episodes of The Simpsons complete with commercial breaks. Their task isn’t easy, as The Simpsons is a hot item among rival groups also working to preserve old television shows. Lines spoken by the characters or details about the plot are highly valued and traded to competing studios for lithium batteries and other dwindling necessities. The business is almost reminiscent of today’s drug cartels, with individuals willing to kill for the rights to reenact episodes.
The final act is staged 75 years after act two. The Simpsons has evolved into a piece of theater similar to that of ancient Greece. The plot is sung/narrated by a chorus and the characters come onstage wearing eerily distorted mask. Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie have evolved into archetypes and the character of Sideshow Bob has been confused with Mr. Burns and is warped into a figure almost satanic in stature. Mr. Burns, a Post Electric Play is darkly comical, a touch experimental in its subject matter and explores the correlation between today’s pop culture and tomorrow’s mythology.
This question-raising show was performed in the Horning Theater of the Delaplaine Fine Arts Center from Thursday, November 6th to Sunday, November 9th. Directed by Kurt Blaugher, the cast was comprised of James Schuette, Nicole Heilos, Hannah Opdenaker, Adam Yastrzemsky, Molly McNair, James Wolfe, Emily O’Brocki and Haylea Wisniewski. All actors and actresses did a remarkable job swinging the show’s mood from light to dark (one moment reminiscing about The Simpsons, the next comparing lists of survivors’ names to see whose friends and family are still alive). They fed the audience heavy, thought-provoking material, but kept the atmosphere light. The props and set pieces were perfectly placed, the lighting was well suited to the performance, sound effects were all delivered on cue and if any lines were bungled the actors seamlessly covered it. Recognition must be awarded to the costume designers, especially for their work in the show’s final act (the Marge Simpson wig was especially eye-catching). Kudos also go to William Hardisky and Elizabeth Bartels for their work on the theatrical masks, which perfectly balanced the creepy with the comical.
It was intensely disorienting to have such a familiar topic as The Simpsons analyzed under such strange circumstances and I know that the performance will stick with me. If you were fortunate enough to make it to one of the four showings of Mr. Burns, a Post Electric Play, then you can’t help but agree that the show was humorous, haunting and a fiendishly good job on the part of all those involved.